8th Circuit Affirms $4.5M Verdict in Brain Injury Case

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has affirmed a $4.5 million verdict in favor of U.S. Marine Aaron Eckerberg for the injuries he sustained when a commercial vehicle, owned and operated by Inter-State Publishing Company, collided with his vehicle.

On February 17, 2014, 40-year-old Lt. Col. Eckerberg was driving a truck and trailer northbound on U.S. Highway 65 in Pettis County, Mo., when it was struck by an Inter-State van because its driver ran a stop sign. Lt. Col. Eckerberg’s truck rolled on its top and came to a rest in a water-filled ditch.

Lt. Col. Eckerberg lost consciousness and was trapped in the vehicle for approximately 10 minutes before he and other passengers escaped the truck by scratching and clawing through mud. After exiting the vehicle, he suffered a grand mal seizure, indicative of brain damage.

Lt. Col. Eckerberg was flown by helicopter from the crash scene to a hospital in Columbia, Mo., and for months after the crash, was in a body cast. He suffered serious and permanent injuries, including a fractured thoracic vertebrate and mild traumatic brain injury.

Lt. Col. Eckerberg brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri at Jefferson City pursuant to the court’s diversity jurisdiction, as a civil action between citizens of different states. He was represented by Langdon & Emison attorneys Bob Langdon and Mark Emison.

After a five-day trial, the jury awarded Lt. Col. Eckerberg $4.5 million in damages for injuries he sustained, which essentially ended his career as a combat helicopter pilot. During trial, Langdon & Emison argued Lt. Col. Eckerberg’s injuries had a significant impact on his future earnings because persisting issues with concentration, memory and focus would affect his ability to fly and serve in the Marine Corps.

Inter-State sought to set aside the verdict, arguing that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because both parties were citizens of Missouri at the time of filing. In an evidentiary hearing on defendant’s motion, Langdon & Emison argued, and the district court ruled that Lt. Col. Eckerberg became a Florida citizen when he attended flight school in 1998, and had remained a Florida citizen since that time.  Inter-State appealed to the 8th Circuit.

In the opinion, 8th Circuit Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote for the panel that evidence was sufficient to support that Eckerberg was a Florida citizen when he filed his complaint based on evidence that he had been registered to vote in Florida since 1998, he had a Florida driver’s license there, and his testimony that the post-military job market in Florida was much better for veterans than Missouri. Because Lot. Col. Eckerberg and Inter-State were citizens of different states, the district court correctly ruled that it had diversity jurisdiction.

On appeal, Inter-State further argued that the district court abused its discretion by not remitting the $4.5 million award, which Inter-State called “‘grossly excessive’ in light of the $59,000 in medical bills.”

The 8th Circuit disagreed, stating in its opinion that Inter-State’s argument “ignores the jury’s option to credit testimony from an economist that established large economic losses even if Eckerberg remained employed but undeployable with the Marines.” The economist testified at trial that Lt. Col. Eckerberg’s inability to fly eliminated “his most lucrative career opportunity as a private-sector helicopter pilot, which was worth over $4 million.”

Judge Smith further wrote in the opinion that “the jury had sufficient basis to find substantial economic losses” and that Inter-State’s damages objection ignored “the scope of the jury award, which also encompassed non-economic damages like the mental and physical effects of the crash.”

“Lt. Col. Eckerberg was a decorated Marine who can no longer fulfill his life-long dream of serving in the Marine Corps.,” said Langdon. “This decision will help Aaron and his family transition into civilian life. I was proud to represent this wonderful family, and I congratulate our appellate team for working vigorously on their behalf.”

Michael Manners, partner at Langdon & Emison, led the firm’s appellate team along with associate attorney Cory Atkins.